Book Corner – April 2019 (2)

Friends and Heroes – Olivia Manning

The opening of Friends and Heroes, published in 1965, the final book of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, finds Harriet Pringle safely in Athens, waiting for her husband, Guy, to join her from Bucharest, which has now been occupied by the Nazis. As Athens is the acknowledged escape route for the ex-pats who frequented the Romanian capital, inevitably many of the characters we came across in the first two books reappear.

It is the comical rogue, Prince Yakimov, who first gives Harriet the news that Guy has arrived safely in Greece. Harriet warms to Yakimov, whom in the earlier books she had treated with disdain, and he grows into something of a confidant. Greece soon comes under attack from the Italians and by the end of the book the Pringles are on the run again, last seen on a boat entering Egyptian waters.

But the war is just a rumble in the background of this story. It is a device to allow characters, many of whom we have met before, appear and disappear as quickly from the story without too much explanation. There is, of course, the diurnal concern of whether they are safe from invasion or incarceration and how they might effect their escape when necessary but it is mood music rather than the heart of the book.

What the book does do is continue the exploration of the state of the Pringles’ marriage. If it wasn’t apparent before, in Athens Harriet realises that Guy is naïve and generous to a fault. His generosity to others is exploited without him receiving anything in return. Cases in point are Toby Lush and Dubedat. Guy had bent over backwards to find the duo employment in the university in Bucharest. They scarpered when the going got tough but when Guy caught up with them in Athens, they did everything they could to thwart his desire to find employment teaching at the British School.

Harriet, less educated than Guy but more worldly-wise, gets frustrated with her husband’s inability to come to terms with the reality of their situation and how his so-called friends are using him. What adds to her frustration is Guy’s inability or unwillingness to see her as a separate individual. Rather Guy sees Harriet as just an extension of his own persona.

Inevitably, these tensions lead to Harriet becoming disillusioned with her marriage and left alone for more time than she deems reasonable, her fancies start to roam. A handsome officer, temporarily stationed in Athens, Charles Warden, takes her fancy. They start a tentative on-off affair, Harriet battling against her innate sense of convention and her loyalty to Guy. Charles and she almost consummate their fling but it is interrupted by the chance arrival of another character from her past who, true to form, throws the Pringle’s erstwhile kindness and hospitality in their face.

Rather echoing Saki’s demise, Yakimov is killed towards the end of the book, a sad loss as he was the one character of truly comic genius in the book.

I enjoyed this book more than the other two, perhaps because I was more familiar with the characters and because there is more action. But, nonetheless, what we have is a collection of English eccentrics, acting as English eccentrics would do. The war and the particular circumstances of war-torn Romania and Greece are just the backdrop to allow Manning to create vignettes of humour, drama and despair. For that reason, I do not see the trilogy as a great piece of literature but Manning did have the luck, if that is what it was, of experiencing and being able to write about the war in a theatre that has rarely been written about in English literature. It makes for a useful addition to the literature of the Second World War.

Perhaps I will revisit the Pringles in the Levant Trilogy but I feel I need some compassionate leave before I start.

Book Corner – May 2018 (3)

The Complete Short Stories of Saki – Hector Hugh Munro

Munro’s last words were said to be “put out that damned cigarette” before he was hit by a sniper’s bullet in France. The tragedy was that he needn’t have served – he volunteered at an age when he was too old to be called up – and so English literature lost one of its finest exponents of the short story. One wonders what heights he would have reached had he not been killed.

There are many collections of Munro’s stories – the one I read lovingly over a period of a year or so, dipping in and out when I needed something to smile about or gasp in amazement, was issued by Vintage Classics. His nom de plume, Saki, means one who serves wine in Urdu and like a waiter he tantalises, pours out his heady brew and leaves the reader gasping for more. His style is very economical, rarely is a word wasted or ill-chosen. His characters are vividly drawn and his stories are peppered with a mordant wit.

What struck me was how inventive Munro’s similes were and how delicious were his turns of phrase. To take just half a dozen at random: “The black sheep of a rather greyish family”, “People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes.” “The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.” “The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.” “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” “I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”  Wonderful.

In many ways Munro is the staging point between Oscar Wilde who must have been an influence and P G Wodehouse, whom he influenced. Many of his characters could have come out of the pages of Wodehouse – two of the recurring characters in his short stories, Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, do nothing more than move from country house to country house, getting into scrapes or causing mischief. There is a childish delight in Munro’s stories at the prospect of cocking a snook and puncturing the pretensions of the middle and upper classes. His stories are humorous but there is more there than you would find in Wodehouse. There is satire, something dark lurking beneath the surface, a touch of the bizarre and the gothic. Many of the stories have an unexpected twist.

My particular favourites are Tobermory, which is about a cat that is taught to talk with disastrous consequences for all, The Unrest Cure where a house’s calm is punctured by the threat of a pogrom, Filboid Studge, The Mouse that tried to help, which is a wonderful satirical attack on the world of advertising and Laura, a strange tale of reincarnation where the protagonists returns as a destructive otter. But there is something for everyone. Most of the stories are very short, some barely lasting a page or two and mostly three or four, but each one left me in awe of the skill and craftsmanship of the author.

For those of a sensitive, politically correct disposition, there are phrases and attitudes that may cause offence but then Munro was a creature of his time just as we are creatures of our own. Just enjoy his stories for what they are, the finest examples of the story in its short form. Shame about the fag.